Letters from Vietnam (3): You are a nuisance

Traffic Madness in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Letters from Vietnam – Part 3

Or should it be: Lessons from Vietnam?

How to be a part of where you are

Today I will head back from the Island Phú Quốc to Hồ Chí Minh City (Saigon); from the serenity of calm and untouched beaches right into the centre of traffic madness. Saigon currently has approximately 7 – 10 million inhabitants and at least 3 million motorbikes. Since cars are mostly unaffordable for the locals and because it is said that Saigon’s streets are too narrow for cars, Saigon is rightly called ‘City of the Motorbikes’.

In most of the travel literature you are advised not to take part in the traffic driving a scooter yourself. If you want a close motorbike experience at all you should hire a motorbike taxi, put on one of the helmets provided (which are nothing more than mere eggshells) and let the taxi driver do the work.

I highly contradict. Driving a motorbike yourself through these jam-packed streets is the ultimate experience of being part of Saigon (and every where else in Vietnam). In my humble opinion you haven’t been in Saigon if you haven’t been in its traffic as an active driver. If you are there, be there. Be a part of your surroundings, do what works for the locals, don’t do stupid things. And, no, self-driving in Saigon is not stupid. As my friend Carsten at amberwiz always uses to say:

If it is stupid and it works, it ain’t stupid.

There are a lot of things to say about this traffic madness, a lot of things we can learn from it, and hence a lot of insights we can apply for our business. I will frequently come back to the traffic in Saigon to give you a hopefully useful perspective for your business.

Let’s start with an experience that I made myself when I first started driving around on my own. I got honked at quite a lot in the beginning. For a reason. Because in that crazy jumble I was the nuisance.

But since this letter from Vietnam is addressed to you this means…

You are a nuisance

Most people say that traffic in Saigon is chaos. Wrong. Very wrong. Here’s your first lesson:

Only because a system is different it’s not necessarily chaotic.

There is a system in Saigon’s traffic, but it is highly different from what we know from the West. When the traffic lights turn red nobody stops immediately. They keep on driving until the traffic density in the center of the crossing forbids to inject more motorists into it. When the traffic lights turn green, on the other hand, it is very wise not to speed into the crossing blindly. The traffic will still be dripping in for quite a while from the side roads.

After I observed the traffic at major street crossings for quite a while I associated the traffic with two or more fluids flowing into and through each other. Although there are heavy accidents on the highways in Vietnam (full speed frontal collisions) I have rarely seen two motorbikes touching each other here. And if it happens, drivers apology and don’t make a big fuzz about it.

Now it was time for me to be one of the droplets and to jump right into it. Got a bike, put on the eggshell, started driving, and became THE nuisance of Saigon immediately.

If we start doing something we disturb others

As soon we start doing something that interacts with this world we run into the danger of being a disturbance for others. That’s just the way it is. Unless you are sitting on a lonely beach (and even there you’ll squeeze and annoy jiggers) you are always interacting with your environment, i.e. other people.

The reason why I was such a fault in an otherwise perfectly running system was, that I wasn’t used to it. I was an inexperienced tourist trying to survive traffic. I braked where I shouldn’t and I accelerated when I mustn’t. In short: due to my inexperience and lack of certainty I was unpredictable for the system.

So here is the…

Lesson learnt

Be predictable.

Unless you want to surprise your surroundings (which obviously can be a good thing under certain circumstances) be predictable. If you want others to follow you instead of being confused by you, always let them know what you are going to do.

This becomes very evident when you try to make a left turn on a major intersection here in Vietnam. Don’t stop. Don’t try to speed through a gap. Instead slowly, but continuously forward into the direction you want to go. The others will know where you’re heading and find a way around you. But this only works if they exactly know where you are in the next second.

A good ice hockey player doesn’t shoot the puck to the place you are, but to the place you will be in the next second. Same with the traffic here. The “enemy” (i.e. the other drivers) don’t drive to where you are, they are driving towards the spot you will not be in the next second. This often gave me the feeling that they were aiming at me. But they don’t. They don’t aim at me, they aim at the position where I am currently in because it will be empty in the next second.

Uncomfortable as it feels, it’s kinda smart, right?

Application of the lesson learnt to your business

If you are part of a team and if you want to work with the team, let them know what you’re doing. Tell others about your plans so that they can support you and are not accidentally blocking your way. If you tell others what you are doing you are not blocking their development, too.

But be aware that you can be a nuisance when you first start doing things you are not used to so far. It doesn’t matter whether you try to run a marathon, start your new business, or give your first public speech – you will always feel uncomfortable. You will often have the feeling that others are shooting at you. But usually they don’t. They are simply following their own idea of a worthy course.

Time for me to get packed, move on and leave Phú Quốc behind me. I will drive to the Dương Đông airport by motorbike taxi, me and my backpack sitting behind the driver (much cheaper and faster than a regular taxi).

And when I am back in Saigon, driving a motorbike myself again, I will try to ease at the insight, that from the 3 million motorbikes in Saigon one million is right behind me, wondering where this weirdo’s heading.

Tạm biệt,
Herzlichst,  Ihr Dr. Thomas Rose



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2 Comments to Letters from Vietnam (3): You are a nuisance

  1. […] by setting foot on the very same. Then slowly but continuously move forward – in short, be predictable. And as by a miracle the traffic will flow around you. Lots of honking still, but not the slightest […]

  2. […] environment is a place where you know what to expect. No (unpleasant) surprises. I wrote about predictability in my third Letter from Vietnam. It explains that under certain conditions it is crucial to be […]

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